Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Written by Moira Macdonald
Published in the Toronto Sun
January 6, 2009. Page 18

So you think schools aren't as good as they used to be? That standards have slipped? That students aren't safe? That nobody fails anymore?

Well, the "Facts in Education" group is ready to burst your bubble.

I, like many reporters covering the school beat, opened a full, post-holiday e-mail queue recently to find a message from this group, connected with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

"Facts in Education aims to correct significant factual errors about education that appear in various news media sources across Canada, and to create wide awareness of the correct information," reads one part of the message. It continues that when the group notices a major boo-boo, it will send a response to both the source of the error and other media outlets. It says responses will argue only with facts, not opinion -- but I'd say the two are usually connected.

"There's a lot of stuff floating around that just is not factually correct," Ben Levin, the project's supervisor told me earlier this week. The group's first target was an opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press last month. The writer, who heads up an aboriginal school authority, claimed American charter schools have helped close "the learning gap" between disadvantaged and "mainstream" students, by increasing standards. This was no rant -- the article was peppered with research references.

But Facts in Education members wrote the "body of evidence" did not support that charter schools are superior.

The group is made up mostly of public education heavyweights who have frequented senior levels of Ontario's education ministry, OISE or both.


Levin -- highly respected in the education community -- twice served as deputy education minister under the Dalton McGuinty Liberals as well as for the Manitoba government.

Also included are former Toronto District School Board director Gerry Connelly, Avis Glaze (former CEO of the ministry's literacy and numeracy secretariat), former EQAO (Ontario's testing agency) assessment director Lorna Earl, Ontario's early learning adviser Charles Pascal, and special McGuinty adviser on education Michael Fullan.

Levin -- now teaching at OISE -- says the project will not get any public funding.

With someone always ready to pull out yet another study to discount somebody else's research -- and in education there always is -- what counts as evidence?

"Enough evidence is not one study," says Levin. "It's a whole body of studies."

One myth, Levin says, is that making weak students repeat a grade is a good idea. He says there's a century of research showing kids who are promoted do better than similar kids held back.

While there's fear and loathing about school safety, Levin says research shows schools are still safer than other places young people frequent.

And if your personal experience is that standards have slipped, Levin points to countless international tests that put Canadian -- and Ontario -- students above most others in the world.

If these folks want to take a shot at correcting the education record -- Go Team! We could always use better-informed debate.

But I'll also say, and Levin agrees with me, that that great bastion of education research, OISE (with an $85-million operating budget last year), does a poor job of telling the rest of us -- who foot its bills and whose children are affected by its work -- what it's doing.


There's something wrong when reporters get spanked for "inaccuracies" yet the institution itself does little to communicate its research conclusions at the front-end, in language all of us can understand.

So bring on the evidence. I doubt it will end the debate. But it will make it more interesting. And maybe all of us -- regular folks and experts alike -- could stand to put our ideas to the test.